“Helvetica” filmmaker refocuses on urban design

The poster for the 2008 film "Helvetica."
The poster for the 2008 film "Helvetica." Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2007, documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit has worked to inspire everyday people to care about design.

Monday evening at the School of Architecture, Hustwit presented a screening of “Urbanized,” the final film in his well-known trilogy about the design process, released in 2011. While the first two films, 2007’s “Helvetica” and 2009’s “Objectified,” deal with the topics of graphic and industrial design, Hustwit’s latest film focuses on urban planning, a field central to the study of architecture at Yale. The screening filled Hastings Hall with a crowd that included architecture professors, graduate students and undergraduates, as well as other members of the Yale community interested in the structure of cities.

In “Urbanized,” Hustwit blends interviews of prominent members of the urban design field with visual footage of cities around the world accompanied by an original score. The film explores an ongoing debate regarding which members of a community should be responsible for designing cities: government officials, architects or the people at large. Hustwit said that by educating viewers about the ways in which urban architecture can affect their daily lives, he hopes they can be both more appreciative and more critical of the urban planning process.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me is how much we as citizens need to be, should be and are not involved enough in the shaping of our cities,” Hustwit said. “I think the most interesting projects are the ones that are citizen-driven.”

For several of the undergraduates who came to see the film, the discussion of the urban design techniques with which governments respond to their constituents’ desires was the most impressive part of the documentary. Many assume that urban design is a “top-down” process, Jared Shenson ’12 said, but he felt that Hustwit showed that a cultural shift towards finding a middle ground between city planners and individual citizens is already occurring.

Hustwit said he created the film with the intention of bringing architecture to a broader audience, hoping that it will find an audience among those not already involved in design. Hustwit included himself in this group, explaining that in part, he made the film to learn more about the issue.

“It’s more valuable as a tool to show people who aren’t involved in design what all of these people do and how it affects them,” Hustwit said.

Although the architects and architecture students present at the screening may already be familiar with many of the technical details of urban design, three architecture professors interviewed said it was interesting to engage further in dialogue about urban issues.

“Urbanism is a very important part of the school,” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said, adding that every graduate student enrolled in the school’s Master of Architecture I program is required to complete a studio course concentrating on an urban topic.

Stern added that while many undergraduate architecture students go on to work in urban planning, most graduate students choose “traditional architectural fields.”

Still, several students, both in the architecture school and in other programs said the film inspired them think more seriously about getting involved with local or small-scale urban design projects. Elihu Rubin ’99, a political science and ethics, politics & economics professor, added that the film might motivate students to consider urban design or planning professions.

“I thought the film gave a really positive and optimistic image of the role of urban designers and planners,” Rubin said. “It didn’t make you feel like there are forces at play you can’t control.”

The first film in Hustwit’s Design Trilogy, “Helvetica,” was nominated for an Independent Spirit “Truer Than Fiction” Award in 2008.

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